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‘Settler agenda is defining the future of Israel’, says US's John Kerry

Jack Guez, AFP | File photo taken on November 15, 2016 shows a poster in Tel Aviv.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Wednesday that Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank was jeopardising the two-state solution, Israel’s security and hopes for peace.

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In a hard-hitting speech delivered in the Dean Acheson Auditorium at the US State Department headquarters in Washington, DC, Kerry defended President Barack Obama’s track record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly the administration’s decision to abstain from voting on a UN resolution declaring Israel’s settlements illegal.

Pushing back on Israel’s fury at the US abstention, Kerry reiterated that the two-state solution was the only way forward. But he noted that continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank had led to an entrenchment of “the status quo”, which he said, “was leading toward a one state” scenario.

"If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both, and it won't ever really be at peace," Kerry said in a farewell speech, a comprehensive airing of grievances that have built up in the Obama administration over eight years but were rarely, until this month, discussed publicly.

"The two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians," Kerry said, warning that such a solution was now in "serious jeopardy".

He also warned that the "settler agenda" was leading Israeli policy in the West Bank and imperiling prospects for peace.

"No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of the threat settlements pose to peace," said Kerry. "But the problem goes well beyond just settlements. Trends indicate a comprehensive effort to take West Bank land for Israel and prevent any Palestinian development there."

Kerry added: "The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: Greater Israel."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the speech as biased and said it was more focused on settlements than on Palestinian violence.

"What he did was he spent most of his speech blaming Israel for the lack of peace," Netanyahu said.

"For over an hour, Kerry obsessively dealt with settlements and barely touched upon the root of the conflict – Palestinian opposition to a Jewish state in any boundaries."

US voted ‘in accordance with our values’

Israel's government was enraged after the US abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution last week that called Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a violation of international law. Netanyahu accused the US of colluding with the Palestinians and helping draft the resolution.

The US has vehemently denied those charges. Kerry insisted the US "did not draft or originate" the resolution, introduced by Egypt and later by a handful of other nations.

"The United States did in fact vote in accordance with our values, just as previous administrations have done," said Kerry. "The vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution. That's what we were standing up for."

Though Kerry's speech was likely to further enrage Israel's government, Kerry did offer assurances that Obama wasn't planning other parting shots that Israel has been concerned are in the works. Kerry said the outgoing administration wouldn't promote a UN resolution laying out parameters for a deal, nor would it recognise Palestinian statehood.

‘No American administration has done more for Israel's security’

Point by point, Kerry tried to rebut the arguments Israel has used to defend the settlements, declaring that "the settler agenda is defining the future of Israel". He warned that Israel was at risk of a permanent occupation of Palestinian territory, drawing a pointed reference to America's own history of racial segregation.

"Separate and unequal is what you would have, and nobody can explain how that works," Kerry said.

Kerry reiterated that the Obama administration's commitment to Israel was as strong as that of previous presidents, but he also noted that previous US administrations had also abstained on certain resolutions critical of Israel. He emphasised the record levels of military assistance the US has provided Israel under Obama, codified by a 10-year aid deal recently struck worth $38 billion.

"No American administration has done more for Israel's security than Barack Obama's," Kerry said.

Obama, who is vacationing with his family in Hawaii, hasn't commented publicly on the resolution or the resulting spat.

‘Stay strong Israel,’ Trump tweets

Kerry's speech defending the administration's Middle East track record came hours after US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted his support for Israel against a backdrop of a deepening row over the settlements issue.

In a series of tweets posted Wednesday, Trump blasted Obama’s policies on the settlement issue and reiterated his support for Israel.

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but.......,” he tweeted before continuing in another post, “not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

Trump’s tweets came as an Israeli committee Wednesday approved a four-story building for settlers in an East Jerusalem Palestinian neighbourhood, according to a local NGO.

While the Jerusalem planning committee postponed requests for building permits for nearly 500 homes in East Jerusalem, it did approve the building in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, according to the Ir Amim NGO which monitors settlement activity.

Ir Amim said the request for the building had been put forward by members of Ateret Cohanim, an organisation that pushes for Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem.

Silwan is next to Jerusalem's Old City and is the site of a long campaign by pro-settlement groups to expand the Israeli presence there.

Palestinians have decried the influx of settlers into Silwan, accusing them of seeking to push them out of their own neighbourhood.

Israel has for decades pursued a policy of building Jewish settlements on occupied territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Most countries view the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees, citing a biblical, historical and political connection to the land, as well as security interests.
Washington considers the settlement activity illegitimate.

Some 570,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem among more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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